Moscow's RT TV: Here's something I haven't seen reported by this station yet, from The Times: Russia is burning through its national reserves at an unprecedented rate, amid a deep economic crisis that has plunged millions of people into poverty and wiped out the advances in living standards achieved during President Putin’s long rule. Hit by western sanctions and low global prices for oil — the bulwark of its economy — the country’s reserve fund, designed to cover shortfalls in the national budget, has shrunk by two thirds since 2014, falling from £67 billion to barely £23 billion, the finance ministry said this week. As millions of Russians struggle to make ends meet, resentment has been growing over the opulent lifestyles of many government officials. . . . . Wealth inequality in Russia is the worst in the world, according to the financial services group Credit Suisse. It says that a total of only 111 people own 19 per cent of the country’s household wealth. Incidentally, the British contributor to RT's hilariously partisan roundtable discussion this morning was said to be from a London think-tank, Politics First. Strangely, its alleged web page don't seem to exist. But here's the chap himself. And here's someone from RT who's a lot prettier . . . I assume she appears on RT USA. By the way, did you know that President Putin was the most popular leader at the recent G20 jamboree?
The UK: At the end of this post is an article by Janet Daley of The Telegraph. It asks whether Mrs May will grasp the opportunity events have presented her with. Interesting and insightful.
The Pope: He and his legions continue to spam my Google + page. I've written to him direct, asking him to put a stop to this. As he surely will. Being a nice chap.
Galicia: We've just had another kamikaze driver, driving 30kmin the wrong direction down the A6 autopista. At 3.30 of an afternoon. This time a young man of only 21 who killed both himself and the driver of a car travelling in the right direction. Possibly a suicide, some say. Whatever, as with last week's train tragedy, it reminds us that there is always deathin the midst of life and that the latter hangs by only a silken thread. There but for the grace of God, as some say.
Talking of religion . . .
Christianity: To we atheists, it's comforting to know that the influence of religion is waning around the world. But yesterday I listened to a BBC podcast on the rapid growth of Protestantism in China, encouraged by the government. Why? Well, firstly. because it values the work ethic and, secondly, because it realises that it can't afford to finance its ageing population and is happy to rely on the Christian concept of charity towards others. Who'd have thought it?
Finally . . . Customer Orientation: I noticed at Vigo station last Thursday that you couldn't see the timetables as you entered or as you stood by the ticket counter, because they're hidden behind a pillar. But then I clocked this very helpful sign which the client-orientated management had put up:-
Brilliantly pragmatic. And cheap.
Another day, another lovely dawn:
The no-entry sign has been removed from down by my short-cut bridge. But this one remains, telling us who repaired the bridge. I wonder how long it'll remain.
Theresa May can now remodel the state in a way not seen since 1945. But will she? Janet Daley
It is becoming clear that Theresa May is planning to seize the moment and interpret the challenge of a post-referendum future as much more than a tricky set of negotiations with the European Union. She obviously views that startling vote as unleashing a tranche of possibilities for the country to re-invent itself, and to adopt a confident scepticism toward the opinions of self-regarding metropolitan know-it-alls (sometimes called “the expert consensus”).
What Mrs May has before her is a prospect of government not only liberated from the restrictions and regulations of the EU but from the restraints of any effective parliamentary opposition. This is a chance for reform and reconstruction of public services, taxation and the role of government that we will be unlikely to see again in our lifetimes – which makes for a dramatically unexpected, and constitutionally awkward, situation. But the indications are that, emboldened by its own bravery in the referendum, the country is up for it, even given a prime minister who has not won a general election or presented an official manifesto.
Her move on grammar schools is hugely significant: it is an attempt to give substance to a declaration of intent about meritocracy, providing opportunity to those who are now losing out, but it is also an explicit defiance of the dominance of London-based opinion. It is worth noting that the predictions of education “experts” on the terrible consequences of expanding grammar schools make such heavy use of London’s singular experience. The Chief Inspector of Schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, seems to base his vituperation almost entirely on the fact that schools in the capital have improved without the need for selection – which leads him to the quite groundless conclusion that introducing more grammars would reverse this progress by removing bright children from existing schools. (He made precisely this claim in a Today programme interview last Friday, which went unchallenged.)
Perhaps he had forgotten that the London Borough of Barnet has some of the best-performing grammar schools in the country and that this does not appear to have damaged the neighbouring comprehensives, which are rated by Ofsted as either good or outstanding. Even more to the point, almost none of the “experts” spewing out fear and loathing over the dire effect of grammar schools makes reference to the vast wastelands to the North, where their absence has been most deleterious. The Northern town I know best had half a dozen grammars back in the wicked old Fifties to serve an overwhelmingly working-class population of around 300,000. As a result, a considerable percentage of its youngsters went on to higher education, which helped to produce the almost-never-mentioned fact that in the Sixties, Britain had the highest proportion of university students from working-class backgrounds of any European country.
Today, that Northern town is at the bottom of the national league tables in educational performance, with its no-selection, no-hope schools sending almost nobody to university. In fact, it was in predominantly working-class areas that grammars made their greatest contribution by offering poor children an escape from the monolithic street culture in which they had grown up. The very fact of selective education, the older inhabitants will tell you, gave rise to aspiration, with its possibility of another kind of life. It is those glimpses of other lives and other mores that neighbourhood-based comprehensives can almost never provide to the pupils who might have been awakened by them.
What the May Government seems to have in mind is the very opposite of the rigid old idea of separating children once and for all at a single point in their education. The answer has to be flexibility and fluidity: an enlarging of possible routes that permits as much scope as possible for individual differences. And this principle (if, indeed, it is their principle – I am only guessing here) could be applied as well to healthcare, that other hugely problematic public service.
The rationing of medical treatment that follows inevitably from the post-war funding model is obviously unsustainable, as is the absence of choice and patient power. The resistance to reform in the NHS, just like that in the school system, is entrenched by the dominance of producer interests, who are determined to prevent what they see as the anarchy of wildly differing parent and patient demands – which they call “inequality”. Surely we could consider health vouchers, or personal healthcare budgets (as are already available for social care), so that patients and their families could exercise some self-determination in their treatment? Why not open the forbidden door to better ways of accessing, and paying for, the service? Why should any alternative to the present arrangements be unthinkable?
Maybe the new idea for this political era is that it is not “socially divisive” to allow differences to flourish: that individuals must pursue the lives, and make the decisions, that suit them with as much room for variability as it is possible to ensure.
In order to deliver this, by definition, it would be necessary for government to get out of the way: to be less intrusive and less controlling of the process. Such a retrenchment would have obvious implications for taxation: a government that does less interfering and controlling ought, in theory, to need less revenue. But even if that seems too much to hope for, the spirit of the age would certainly point to a simplifying of taxation so that individual enterprise found the system less restrictive and overbearing.
There have only been a few moments in modern British history when the population at large seemed ready for this kind of major shift in the political settlement. Immediately after the Second World War, there was an overwhelming sense of responsibility and concern for the great mass of working class people who had sacrificed so much for the national cause. The scandals of poor health, housing unfit for purpose and inadequate schooling were addressed with virtually unanimous support from the electorate: these were moral priorities which, for a time, transcended party politics.
Then, in the Eighties, there was an almost universal sense that the country had to deal with forces that were making it ungovernable. The power of the trade unions to disrupt daily life and undermine the economy produced a despair that invited radical change. Desperation and hopelessness turned to anger and the obvious solutions became so electorally irresistible that they had to be endorsed by every party that wished to survive in the mainstream. So where there had been a general sense in the post-war period that the answers to social problems must lie in collective solidarity administered by state control, by the Eighties the view was that individual aspiration and the value of private life was being crushed by collectivism and Big Government.
There is a new mood now that could, if the government has the nerve to act, be transformative. In June, the people decided to defy the smug metropolitan club who were telling them that their national pride was somehow despicable. Having won majorities in every region of England apart from London (an important point) it has not escaped their notice that their own judgment appears to have been vindicated by a stream of good economic news. This is a revelation that goes right to the heart of the power balance in British public life. At least for the moment, it seems as if the “experts” who talk mainly to one another in their London strongholds, were wrong and the people, with their quaint instincts, were right. Imagine that.